Review: Fred Vargas – The Ghost Riders of Ordebec

Ghost RidersMost of the books that I review on this blog are either by writers who I already enjoy, or ones that I’m keen to try. However, like all readers I have my favourite authors and Fred Vargas is one of them. She’s been translated very slowly into English. On my trips to France, I would see Vargas’s books in the supermarkets and curse the fact that my reading French wasn’t in a better state. I think with The Ghost Riders of Ordebec though, we are more or less up to date with the Adamsberg series, even if they have been translated out of order.

The previous book in the series, An Uncertain Place, took Adamsberg out of France to London and Serbia. It wasn’t one of Vargas’s best and I think she was wise to bring the location back to France. Adamsberg is visited in Paris by a woman whose daughter has see the legendary ghost riders that appear in Normandy and forewarn of death to those who appear in the vision. She is worried about the safety of her daughter and pleads with Adamsberg to help the family. His curiosity piqued, Adamsberg travels to the region and becomes embroiled in local politics as the prophecy begins to be fulfilled.

Vargas is a writer who divides her readers. Some fellow reviewers I know absolutely love her, and like me eagerly await each new novel. Others, who share similar tastes with me in relation to other writers, don’t get on with this author at all. It’s interesting that a writer can divide opinion so much. Part of the reason is the style of narration. There’s a sly humour to the writing that can extend to outright surreality. This is most clearly seen in the characterisation. Adamsberg is an off-beat, slow paced cop who takes an age to do things and works mainly on instinct. In his team are a binge-eater who hides snacks around the station, the statuesque Retancourt who casts a strange spell over men she meets, and Veyrenc who likes to speak in rhyming couplets. To be fair, these are part of the attraction to Vargas’s many fans but the quirkiness can also put people off.

After his Serbian excursions, Adamsberg is much better on home territory. Most of the book is set in Normandy, the location of a previous novel This Night’s Foul Work. The rural setting reads like somewhere out of a Balzac novel. You have a well-connected Comte, his unpleasant stepson and secret first marriage to a village girl. The ghost riders of the title are the mythical ‘furious army’ of northern Europe, a spectral group of huntsmen who flash across the sky and bring with them death and pestilence. In my part of England they are called the Gabriel Hounds and I was interested to read about the areas where they appear. With Vargas you are never quite sure where the interweaving of fact and fiction is going to take you. The ghost riders give the book a supernatural element but you are never completely taken in that direction. Instead it is the motifs – in this book the prevalence of sugar lumps that keep appearing in relation to the  case – that are compelling for the reader.

This is Vargas back on form and, considering that she has won the CWA International dagger three times already, this book must be a strong contender for the short-list.

Thanks to Karen at Eurocrime who gave me her copy of this book.

Classic Crime – Mary Stewart

When I was a teenager, most of my reading was done through books borrowed from my local library. I only have to see the yellow hardbacks of Victor Gollancz or Agatha Christie Collins Crime Club editions to be transported back to those days. One author I regularly saw on the shelves but passed over was Mary Stewart. Given the amount of crime reading I did I’m not sure why I was disinclined to read the author but that was rectified recently when two of her books were added to my reading list. The first, Wildfire at Midnight, I acquired second-hand in Athens, Greece and is a 1956 paperback edition printed in the US. Before you even start reading the novel there is a wealth of history in the book. The cover is straight out of the 1950s with a young woman up a mountain in court shoes and a trench coat and inside the front cover, a stamp identifies the book sold by the American News Agency in Athens for 48 drachmas. The second book I acquired was Touch Not the Cat, a 2011 reissue by Hodder, with the front cover re-branded for a twenty-first century audience. And yet despite the difference in presentation, the stories inside were very similar.

Wildfire at Midnight tells the story of Gianetta, a clothes model at a London fashion house who travels to the Isle of Skye in Scotland for a rest. There are only ten or so other people in the hotel, including her ex-husband Nicholas. The group is reluctant to talk about the huge mountain, Blaven, that looms over the hotel until it is revealed that a local girl was recently found murdered there. All the guests in the hotel, with the exception of Gianetta, are suspects. When two other women disappear, the group search for the missing climbers uncomfortably aware that one of them is likely to be a murderer.

I’d forgotten that many books from this time had no blurbs to accompany them. I had no idea what to expect but it was quite fun to plunge straight into the narrative. The book was half-thriller and half-romance and I enjoyed the thriller aspect very much. There was the suggestion of the supernatural in the killings and although this wasn’t realised, Stewart effectively portrayed the eeriness of the mountains in this remote part of the world. Although I worked out the identity of the murderer early on, this was the part of the fun of it as the reader is almost one step ahead of the protagonist. The romance parts I found slightly less satisfactory, they reminded me of Mills and Boon books with the plethora of adverbs – ‘sardonically’, ‘raggedly’ –  now passée. But again quite good fun to read. This book has also been reissued with as part of the Hodder series.

In Touch Not the Cat, the supernatural element was more pronounced with Bryony, the female protagonist, having an inherited telepathic ability to communicate with someone she calls her ‘lover’ although she has no idea who he is. When her father dies, the crumbling Ashley estate in the Malvern Hills is entailed away to one of her male cousins, who with his twin brother is already looking to realise the cash value of the lands. Although initially happy to help, when she realises small items of value have been disappearing from the house, she begins to reassess her father’s accidental death and is determined to find the mysterious stranger snooping around the estate.

Like the first book, I spotted who the ‘lover’ was fairly early on but I actually enjoyed the romance more in this book. I suspect (but am not sure) that the editor’s pen has been at work in this reissue and the romance has been made more palatable for a twenty-first century reader. Once more Stewart effectively created an atmosphere of tension and evil to deliver a very enjoyable read.

Mary Stewart, born in 1916, doesn’t have a website, although there is a fun, unofficial site here, completely in keeping with the style of the books.